Walt Harris was on the verge of a victory in the main event of a UFC show at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, that would have been the most significant of his career. It wouldn’t be right to call it a storybook finish, because this man was attempting to return to work after his 19-year-old stepdaughter was brutally murdered.
No victory would make this a happy ending.
But at the very least, a win over Alistair Overeem would have been some small measure of comfort for Harris, who said that his daughter, Aniah Blanchard, had encouraged him to keep going throughout all of the low moments during his fighting career.
He landed a right-left combination that dropped Overeem early in the first round and was delivering significant punishment, as referee Dan Miragliotta moved his weight onto his front foot to check on Overeem.
But Overeem was the wrong opponent to face on this night and in this situation, because he’s not a guy to give up easily. And with 20 years of experience, if there is one thing he knows, it’s how to survive.
When Overeem finally got up, an anxious Harris threw a kick. Overeem blocked it and Harris stumbled down. From that point on, it was a one-sided fight. Overeem spent the remainder of the first round pummeling Harris. In the second, he landed a kick to the head and then a hard left that dropped Harris.
Overeem finished him at 3:00 of Round 2 and Harris’ dream of dedicating his most significant win to his late daughter was crushed. As Harris stayed still on all fours letting what had happened sink in, Overeem walked over, kneeled down and embraced him.
It was the kind of human emotion that everyone was feeling all week as soon as Harris arrived in Jacksonville. But it was difficult for Overeem, who knew that virtually everyone watching other than his family, friends and teams would be rooting for Harris.
Overeem did his job but when it ended, he, too, was rooting for Harris.
He said he knew that by mixing up his shots he could create an opening for himself.
“I had landed a low kick and so I knew his attention would be low, on the leg,” Overeem said. “I landed a high kick and then finish up on top [with a left hand]. I was able to land some ground and pound. He was tough. He didn’t want to give up.”
Harris showed remarkable composure through fight week and spoke of Aniah in all of his interviews in a strong voice. They’d bonded early in his fight career when he was making next to no money and so his wife was working double shifts. Aniah helped him raise his son.
And when he would doubt himself or his ability to be successful in this most difficult of sports, Aniah would be the positive voice he needed.
After the fight, he was typically classy. He thanked the UFC and his team for everything they’d done for him and apologized to the fans for not pulling out the victory.
“To all my fans watching back home, I’m sorry I didn’t get the ‘W’ for you,” said Harris, who had no reason to apologize. “I’ll be back better. You haven’t seen the last of ‘The Big Ticket.’ I’m going to heal emotionally and physically and I promise I’ll be back better.”
He came into the fight off back-to-back first-round knockout wins, and would have been on a four-fight winning streak had a victory over Andrei Arlovski not been changed to a no-contest because he’d had a tainted supplement in his system. Overeem, though, was the best fighter he faced and a guy who is a survivor. Overeem was badly hurt, but he remained calm, protected himself as best he could on the ground and worked his way back to his feet.
Once he did, the fight was essentially over. Harris may have been overly emotional and got overanxious after Overeem got up. We’ll never know.
What we do know is that he fought well and bravely under unimaginable circumstances and made more fans with the way he carried himself prior to this fight and after it than he had in his entire career.
He’s a classy, compassionate, easy-going guy who packs a punch in that left hand of his. He’s still got a lot of fights left in him and has the opportunity to once again move up the rankings.
The heart-warming victory eluded him, but Walt Harris left the Octagon on Saturday very much a winner.
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